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March 29, 2019 Practice Points

Tips for Creating Diverse and Inclusive Law Firms

Three ways to improve your firm’s practices.

By Ariel E. Harris

A few months ago, the legal community did a double take when one image hit the internet: 12 attorneys who had recently achieved partnership at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP—11 white men and one white woman. This law firm partnership announcement was intended to convey a congratulatory message to its 12 newest partners. However, the announcement and accompanying image served another unintended purpose. It pointed out the reality that there is still a huge lack of diversity in the legal profession, and that lack of diversity seems to greatly diminish as one moves higher up the ladder of success. Even with a growing number of legal diversity initiatives among top law firms across the country, the diversity and inclusion conundrum still exists. The issue may forever be an intricate and nuanced one, but there are steps that can be taken to improve diversity and inclusion in law firms.

Diversify Recruiting Practices

Intentional recruiting is key to improving diversity in law firms. Committing to diversity-aligned recruiting practices can drastically and organically contribute to producing a diverse culture within a law firm. Diversity-aligned recruiting not only means recruiting diverse candidates at more recognized and traditionally esteemed law schools but also taking a chance on candidates who attend law schools that are not top ranked. There are many law schools that produce exceptionally apt practitioners, but top law firms never even consider these schools. In short, law firms should deliberately expand the scope of their reach when it comes to recruiting. 

Invest in Attorneys Who Are Diverse

As noted above, diversity seems to greatly diminish in management and partnership roles in law firms. Though it may be easy for law firms to brush this fact off and attribute it to a myriad of reasons, taking accountability for its role in this reality and taking steps to address these disparities will serve any law firm well. With that said, it is not enough to recruit diverse attorneys; law firms should also make sincere efforts to invest in its diverse attorneys.  According to an article published by the ABA Section of Litigation Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Nine Tips for Building a Diverse and Inclusive Law Firm, firms should “make sure diverse lawyers are getting good training, constructive feedback with opportunities to correct, equitable work distribution, real client-facing opportunities, stretch assignments, increasing responsibility, and access to key decision-makers.”  These steps are vital to retaining diverse attorneys and ensuring that the “I” in diversity and inclusion becomes a genuine and organic component of a law firm’s culture. Simply having diverse attorneys who span a wide demographic is not enough because inclusivity is essential to employee retention. This means not just opening the doors to a law firm, but also instilling a sense of belonging in the firm’s culture and environment. It can be as rudimentary as remembering to ask the diverse attorneys in the firm to join a lunch or providing various opportunities for diverse attorneys to accompany key decision-makers to business development events. Ultimately, showing your diverse attorneys that you value their voices and their involvement in the firm’s culture is vital to their success and the firm’s success.  

Recognize and Celebrate Differences

Studies show that workplace diversity can bring about increased productivity and creativity. In fact, an article published by Forbes entitled Why Workplace Diversity is So Important, and Why It’s So Hard to Achieve asserts that diversity gives employers access to a greater range of talent and makes organizations more effective, successful, and profitable. Recognizing and celebrating the differences of others is one key to the success for any organization, including law firms. It is important to foster an environment where individuals feel comfortable sharing and drawing from the characteristics and experiences that make them unique. These unique qualities are a resource that no law firm should take for granted.

In the end, diverse perspectives and experiences will contribute positively to a law firm’s success. These tips provide a great way for law firms to begin improving diversity and inclusion, but it is up to each attorney within the firm—not just the diverse attorneys—to point out shortcomings, take accountability for any lack of diversity, and push for continued improvement. As my former soccer coach, Anson Dorrance, always says, “we should aspire to live on a never-ending path of ascension.” In other words, strive for and push your law firms to constantly be improving their diversity and inclusion. 

Ariel E. Harris is with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).